Overcoming gridlocks: towards a plurilateral framework for BRICS+

Ever since BRICS was created as a block, it operated on the basis of consensus meaning that all key decisions were to be supported by all core members. With time, advances such as the creation of the New Development Bank, were accompanied by a rising number of issues where core BRICS members were divided and not quite singing from the same songbook. Most recently these divisions started to surface around critical themes such as BRICS future expansion, the modalities of BRICS+ and the possibility of launching a BRICS common currency. While there may be scope to retain some of these divisions and allow more time to arrive at consensus, there may also be pathways to advance BRICS+ cooperation even in cases when some of the core members are not yet on board. One of the clues to how gridlocks in BRICS could be overcome are the ongoing discussions on the reform of global institutions such as the WTO. 

In recent periods one solution that is increasingly discussed with respect to surmounting the constraints imposed by unanimity and consensus requirements in global organizations is the framework of plurilateral agreements, i.e. accords that do not require all members of the organization to agree, with scope for those parties that support the agreement to further pursue its implementation. With respect to BRICS such a vision of an upgraded BRICS+ framework that incorporates the capabilities of plurilateral formats has already been outlined back in 2021 in a publication “BRICS+ 2.0: integration reloaded” where it was argued that “one of the ways to upgrade/modernize this BRICS+ concept into a “BRICS+ 2.0” would be to take on board some of the recent proposals from the World Economic Forum (WEF) concerning the modalities of economic alliances in the modern world. The proposed governance structure (as reflected in the World Economic Forum report entitled “Globalization 4.0 Shaping a New Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”) was characterized by greater flexibility at various levels of governance to pursue plurilateral agreements in specific sectors without the need to ensure complete support for new liberalization initiatives from all countries. In the context of the BRICS+ circle such a framework may leave open the possibility for bilateral and plurilateral agreements to complement the core network of regional alliances formed by BRICS countries and their respective regional neighbours”.

The option of using plurilateral agreements without the need to secure consensus on all issues is particularly critical to organizations such as the WTO that since its inception operated on the basis of unanimity in adopting key decisions. With consensus being increasingly hard to reach in view of the widening North-South rift, the WTO ended up in a gridlock with rounds of trade liberalization not being launched in decades. In evaluating the venues to by-passing these roadblocks, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has proposed to use the plurilateral framework for reaching key agreements within the WTO including on sectoral trade liberalization issues. 

Within BRICS there are a number of formats that can serve as a basis for launching plurilateral initiatives. One is the so-called RICs – Russia, India and China – that brings together the Eurasian members of BRICS. Another platform is IBSA – India, Brazil and South Africa – this format is regaining its momentum as all three BRICS economies are presiding in the G20 in the 2023-2025 period. There may be further such strategic “triangles” formed within BRICS as well as within the broader BRICS+ framework – the “partial alliances”/”BRICS triangles” within the BRICS core can serve as outreach modes of economic cooperation with the broader Global South. 

One area where the plurilateral format could be implemented is the BRICS+ “integration of integrations”, namely the bringing together of the main regional integration blocks led by the respective core BRICS members. At this stage the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is actively seeking to build ties with other regional blocks where BRICS countries are members. A platform of cooperation that brings together the EAEU, the SCO and BRICS was discussed at the 2023 Eurasian Economic Forum. Even if not all of the regional blocks headed by BRICS are ready to become part of this platform, there may be a plurilateral setting that advances trade and investment cooperation between 2 or 3 such blocks led by BRICS economies with the possibility of expanding to other regional arrangements associated with BRICS+ when they are ready. At this stage apart from the EAEU there is a strong case for ASEAN, MERCOSUR and the African Continental Free Trade Area to become part of such a BRICS+ platform. 

Accordingly, one possible “BRICS triangle” that focusses on launching a trans-continental platform of “integration of integrations” could include South Africa, Brazil and Russia – SABR – a grouping that could bring together the BRICS economies that are most advanced and most focused on the co-integration of regional agendas within BRICS. Such a format allows for the representation of BRICS regional blocks from each of the three continents of the Global South – Mercosur in South America, AfCFTA in Africa and the EAEU in Eurasia. Within Eurasia India needs to put more flesh on its regional integration projects such as BIMSTEC, while China’s RCEP project goes beyond the realm of the Global South and includes a number of advanced economies. At the same time the Eurasian Economic Union is well positioned to be part of this “triangular BRICS diplomacy” in the sphere of regional integration as it has signed memoranda of understanding with MERCOSUR and the African Union. For Russia the RICs could then be the “Eurasian BRICS triangle”, with SABR allowing for a trans-continental perspective on economic cooperation with the developing world. The SABR triangle itself could serve as a platform for outreach to other regional blocks from the Global South, including ASEAN and the GCC – the regional projects from India and China could join in if and when they are ready.

In the end, apart from expanding the array of countries cooperating with BRICS, the BRICS+ framework also raises the potential for using plurilateral formats with economies and regional blocks that are outside of the BRICS core.  Such a plurilateral BRICS+ framework can endow BRICS with greater flexibility and dynamism. The ability to move forward and explore various modalities of cooperation despite differences among the core members may be key to revitalizing BRICS and keeping it abreast of the main institutional improvements in other regional blocks and global organizations.